It is really bad. The sewage, the filth, the trash, it all stinks. Everything is run down. The market shacks, strung together with broken, dirty sticks, are closed.
91st Engineers is on patrol. We are in Shula, but the guys from Bravo Company - 91st call it "Shit Creek". It is a stronghold of Muq'tada al-Sadr followers situated in a corner of Baghdad. Muq'tada posters are plastered everywhere.
Today is Friday and the streets of Shula are deserted. Since taking over this beat the soldiers have had some battles in this district and anticipate attacks in between Friday prayers. It remains extraordinarily quiet today.
It's 120 Fahrenheit out and we heat up even more with the body armor on. One of the soldiers, PFC Riley, climbs out of the Bradley and within minutes collapses from heat exhaustion.
The soldiers advise an Iraqi family they will temporarily put some of their men on the roof. The Iraqi man protests slightly but opens the door so the 4 soldiers can pass. On the second floor, a small ragged reprint of Muq'tada Al-Sadr is taped on a door. Big beige open gunnysacks filled with white flour and rice are heaped in piles leaning against the wooden staircase.
Two women with children clinging to their black attire smile at me from behind the cracked door. I speak a few words in my probably unintelligible Iraqi Arabic. The women open the door wider. One of the women glances at the photo of Muq'tada al-Sadr and in English says "good' as she points to the numerous bags of food supplies.
Specialist Justin Serrano leads the soldiers in a trot down the barren streets. The heat is ferocious and after two hours of patrolling on foot I tear off my armored vest and Kevlar helmet and throw them into the back seat of a trailing humvee.
The town is quiet and the new Captain, Chris Leadbetter, orders the troops to roll out. We are on our way back to the base when the Captain receives a call about a possible IED on the road ahead. The Captain volunteers the platoon to assist.
Ten minutes later we pull off to the side of the road. The soldiers take strategic positions on foot to redirect traffic away from the bomb.
Spec. Serrano crouches by a gravel mound on the side of the highway with his sniper rifle prepared. Sgt. Misher is at another gravel mound also ready. Other soldiers are stationed across the highway in the Bradleys.
I keep my gear off. It feels great. I run across the street and photograph some Iraqi kids with a donkey and cart.
On the rooftop of an Iraqi's house I see several soldiers scanning with their weapons. It looks like one of them is LaGrande Smith. I pass a brick corner and the 16-35 mm lens hanging over my shoulder bangs the wall and cracks into two pieces. I get this sinking feeling. I go to the captain and joke, "maybe something is going to happen right now because I only have a 300 mm lens." I walk away from the humvee and turn as a thunderous blast shakes the ground. We all look in the distance hoping to see the source of the blast.
Sgt Cesar Trevino, the gunner, begins yelling in pain.
"Aw aw … my hand, my hand." I can barely make him out through the debris. I see blood dripping down his face.
I think about running over to Trevino and see Justin Serrano running towards the humvee. He grabs Trevino and they disappear into the safety of the humvee. The Captain and PFC Riley are inside the humvee. Specialist Cadet is hunkered beside the humvee, trying to stay out of the falling shrapnel.
Shrapnel is hitting the ground rapidly. In front of my feet rocks mixed with metal fragments fly upward. I take a few pics even though dust and clouds of debris obscure everything. I try to move out of the falling shrapnel. Something hits my arm but I don't feel any pain. Later a temporary six-inch bruise will be my only mark.
There is no room in the humvee, so I run over to the side of a house.
Around the corner Iraqis are screaming but as I head toward them, Sgt. Misher yells at me, "Get away from the house." I see the Bradley gun pointed in my direction and hope the gunner doesn't think the mortars came from the house.
An Iraqi man carrying a boy who was hit several blocks away by the mortar shrapnel shouts to the women who are near the house. The boy is crying and his thighs and legs are cut and bloody. The Iraqi man turns to me and yells, "Americans OUT! OUT!" A second Iraqi man defends me.
A solider is yelling at me, it must be Misher. I can only mutter "I'm sorry" to the Iraqi man and wounded boy before fleeing back to the vehicles.
I am instructed to get to a Bradley. It's on the other side of a 4-lane highway. I run as fast as I can while the guys fire machine guns overhead.
The soldiers rush Trevino to the medics back at Camp Blackjack. Justin Serrano stays with Trevino in the medic tent holding his fragmented bloody hand. I stay out of the tent and talk to Specialist Gary Cadet. Cadet is a very calming person. Colonel Martin, the commanding officer of the 91st Engineers, arrives to see how Sgt. Trevino is coping. As Martin leaves he tells Cadet to clean all the blood out of the humvee and prepare it to roll out again. The Commander gives the squad the rest of the day off.
While Trevino is being treated in the medic's tent, evening falls on Camp Blackjack and the echo of the Islamic evening prayer can be heard in the distance. It's still Friday, the "holy" day in Iraq.
Trevino might lose some of his fingers but he is alive. The army will send him home.
© Sherrlyn Borkgren
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